Displaced, downtrodden in N.J.

Tamera Santana at the Esplanade Suites in Wildwood. She had to evacuate her Seaside Heights apartment. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Tamera Santana at the Esplanade Suites in Wildwood. She had to evacuate her Seaside Heights apartment. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer (TOM GRALISH / Staff)

The neediest victims of the hurricane are struggling to get their lives back on track.

Posted: January 28, 2013

WILDWOOD - If they could just scrape together a few hundred more dollars, they could get to Florida, Renee Sotelo repeated to herself.

They already had the moving truck loaded with what little they had salvaged from their rental house in Seaside Heights after Hurricane Sandy hit. But the truck was a gas guzzler, so she'd need more cash to get to the trailer park in Jacksonville her cousin had found.

"It's a really nice trailer park. They have two pools, and I think the kids are going to like it," she said. "We're basically going to get down there on a prayer."

A few years ago, Sotelo and her husband, Brian, had been talking about buying a house near the Shore, but then Brian broke his back in a fall on his construction job, and life quickly spiraled downhill.

When Sandy hit Oct. 29, they were barely paying their bills. For weeks after the storm, Renee scoured the rental listings, trying to find them a new place, but nothing was in their price range, and time was running out.

FEMA told them that by the end of the week, the agency would no longer pay to house them in a hotel. Upstairs, their two daughters anxiously watched Brian writhe in agony as he waited for his back medication to kick in.

With a cold wind rolling off the ocean through the hotel parking lot, Florida sounded nice.

Since Sandy struck New Jersey, those affected on the margins of society - the working poor, unemployed, welfare recipients, and those who just never got their lives off the ground - have struggled to find housing and employment in what experts worry could amount to a social crisis in years to come.

For them, life after the storm has been a bouncing act between government shelters and motel rooms, never knowing where they will be one week to the next and often having to start life over without financial resources or family support.

Many were barely getting by when the storm hit. Now, they have become reliant on a system of government disaster assistance and charity aid that was set up hastily in an imperfect world of unscrupulous landlords that have long plagued lower-income communities.

"There's a lot of people who are lower income who don't have the reserves of money to put out," said Patricia Quigley, a professor at the Rutgers School of Social Work. "It's similar to what happened with Katrina. They have nothing to build from, at the same time as they're trying to keep the kids in schools and keep some consistency and routine."

The difficulty of navigating the storm's aftermath with limited financial resources became apparent almost from the moment residents on the Shore's barrier islands evacuated to mainland shelters.

Their more affluent neighbors filtered out to hotel rooms and friends' guest rooms in the days after Sandy, but many had nowhere to go.

Tamera Santana, a 48-year-old chambermaid, had evacuated her ground-floor apartment in Seaside Heights with only two changes of clothes, thinking the storm would be like Hurricane Irene the previous summer, when residents just waited for the storm to pass and went home.

"It was always the roller coaster on the TV, but it was five days before I found out that my house was wrecked and I wasn't going home," Santana said. "FEMA wasn't even in the picture for a week."

When the shelter at Toms River North High School closed Nov. 7, whoever was left was bused out in the middle of a nor'easter to a racetrack in Oceanport, Monmouth County.

There, they were led into a near-empty plastic tent the size of a football field where victims huddled under thick layers of blankets to try to stay warm. Snow blew in from under the tent flaps as fuel-powered heaters struggled to keep up with the worsening conditions outside.

Sotelo remembers it being so cold some had to be treated for hypothermia, which the New Jersey Department of Human Services disputed.

"There was no way I was staying there another night," Sotelo said. "I paid someone I never met $150 to drive me and my family to Wildwood. There were no hotel rooms in Ocean County anywhere."

Those whose houses were made uninhabitable were expected to be able to find rental housing. FEMA would pay the first two months' rent with the possibility to renew if the displaced were unable to come up with the rent thereafter.

But the number of people the storm displaced is estimated at 41,000. And New Jersey, heavy on tract housing and short on apartments outside its cities, has long been regarded as one of the toughest rental markets in the country.

FEMA runs a website to help storm victims find rentals. A search last week returned more than 500 listings within 40 miles of Seaside Heights. But those who have used the site said most listings were outdated or the properties were in such bad shape and the rents so overpriced they were unsuitable.

"I found a duplex here, real nice place," said Laura Englebrook, whose apartment in Seaside Park was flooded. "The ad said $1,100 a month, but the landlord saw me coming and jacked it up to $1,295.

"I'm high-risk," she added. "Bad credit; no income."

The difficulty in getting low-income people into housing has been exacerbated by the loss of much affordable housing - which often means ground-floor apartments on the flood-prone bay side of barrier islands, said Olga Pomar, a lawyer with the nonprofit South Jersey Legal Services in Camden.

Adding to the problem is that many landlords are withholding security deposits on storm-damaged properties despite a rule that they must return the money within five days of a natural disaster.

"It makes it that much harder for them to access the few affordable units out there," Pomar said. "It might sound good to say they can just move 50 miles inland, but for a low-income person, that can be a huge hurdle. They might not have a car to get to their job. And you're asking them to just move somewhere and start over."

Since Sandy, hundreds of refugees have found themselves in Wildwood, which, though bustling in summer, is a sleepy, at times insular Shore town in the middle of winter.

Work is hard to come by this time of year, especially for the refugees, many of whom are still without a permanent address and know barely a soul.

Since giving up her career as a nurse's assistant eight years ago because of nerve damage from repeatedly lifting patients from beds, Santana has bounced from one service-industry job to another. She sought work as a waitress, but restaurants were fully staffed for the winter.

"It probably won't be until April. It's really slow right now," she said. "I'm going to keep trying. But social services is going to have to step in to help."

For some, the offer of a free hotel room has translated into an excuse to let loose.

Around the holidays, some storm victims would routinely gather in the handful of downtown bars still open. At one hotel, drug and alcohol abuse was so rampant Laura Englebrook said she worried about leaving her teenage children there alone.

On Jan. 10, Middle Township police were called to a motel room in Rio Grande where one of the refugees, Richard Schultz, 48, of Seaside Heights, was found dead.

By his neighbors' account, Schultz's drinking usually started in early afternoon and went straight through the night, the sound of his body slamming against walls and furniture still audible through the thin motel walls at dawn.

Just days before his death, Schultz sprawled across his half-made bed, watching an Elvis Presley film on television. Miniature liquor bottles peeked from under the mattress and behind piles of half-eaten energy bars.

He couldn't say how long he'd been there.

"I'm so confused. I don't know how much time I have left here," he said. "I was living in Seaside when the storm hit . . . Jaws owns Seaside now. Da-da, da-da, da-da-da-da-da-da."


Staff writer James Osborne talks with displaced residents living in motels in Wildwood:

www.philly.com/sandypoor


Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876, jaosborne@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @osborneja.

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